The Trump Administration Is Giving Up on Fighting the Pandemic

The death toll is climbing. For the president, it’s nothing more than a matter of political inconvenience.

One of the challenges of writing political analysis in the era of the absurd is that simply repeating the “straight” news carries the lurid shock of hyperbole—and there’s little more that one can say beyond restating the obvious. The most appropriate additions to the news would be less a matter of adding context and more inserting furious expletives. Even the politely serious tone of the traditional pundit itself becomes a form of normalization of—and even acquiescence to—the outrageous and unacceptable.

So when you read a story as shocking as this one, perhaps the best thing one can do is let it speak for itself:

After several months of mixed messages on the coronavirus pandemic, the White House is settling on a new one: Learn to live with it.

Administration officials are planning to intensify what they hope is a sharper, and less conflicting, message of the pandemic next week, according to senior administration officials, after struggling to offer clear directives amid a crippling surge in cases across the country. On Thursday, the United States reported more than 55,000 new cases of coronavirus and infection rates were hitting new records in multiple states.

The American federal government under Trump is functionally giving up on controlling the worst pandemic in over a century. This is not because the pandemic is uncontrollable—far from it. Most of the rest of the developed world has brought infection rates to low enough levels that they can begin to reopen and live their lives mostly as usual, tamping down any local outbreaks as necessary.

But not the United States. Americans already had a cultural predisposition to make controlling a pandemic challenging: our libertarian streak and distrust of collective action or compliance makes just enforcing mask-wearing (much less stricter measures) a challenge. Four decades of Reaganism has rendered much of the public incapable of even imagining the scale of either medical intervention or fiscal stimulus that other countries undertook as a matter of course. While most other countries were guaranteeing wages and conducting strict contact tracing and isolation, Americans were getting measly one-time $1,200 checks and figuring out if we should really close down bars and casinos or not.

It would have required strong leadership from the federal government to overcome America’s cultural challenges. Instead, the Trump administration actively downplayed the threat of the virus for purely political reasons, hoping to minimize even a temporary economic impact. They polarized Republican America against taking necessary measures, again for political reasons: their base either didn’t believe the virus was a threat because Fox News said it wasn’t, or didn’t care because the first wave of infection mostly hit people of color in urban areas.

Now? They’re just giving up. Faced with the reality that truly defeating the virus would require mobilization of medical resources, contact tracing and social assistance that Republicans simply will not tolerate, the Trump administration has declared defeat. The president himself is still engaged in wishful thinking that the virus will simply magically disappear. The rest of the Republican leadership is assuming that people will be desperate enough to go to work and live their normal lives even if it means possibly killing themselves and vulnerable people around them, or becoming violently ill for weeks with possible lifelong health repercussions.

The death toll in the United States is 132,000 and climbing. Infection rates are spiking at record levels. Most of the rest of the world got it under control. But America, with four percent of the world’s population, has 25 percent of the cases of the disease.

And the president of the United States is simply giving up because it would too politically inconvenient to do anything else. What else is appropriate to say except words you can’t use on public airwaves?

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.